Restrepo/War (2010)

I first watched Restrepo about seven months ago.  The acclaimed documentary had just come out on DVD and I found it to be a stunning piece of work.  That week, I talked about it on the podcast I was co-hosting for The Parallax Review.  Unfortunately, D.B. had not seen the film, so it was just me rambling on for seven plus minutes about how intense the combat footage was and how, despite the lack of politics on display in the film, it seemed to me to be the ultimate argument against continuing the war in Afghanistan.  My near-incoherent ramblings failed to make for interesting listening, so I doubt many of our listeners took my suggestion that they immediately watch the film.

I really never expected to revisit the film in a critical capacity, but two things changed in the past couple of months.  The first thing, tragically, was the death of Restrepo co-director and producer Tim Hetherington.  A respected photojournalist who had covered wars all over the world, he was naturally drawn to Libya to cover the rebellion currently being all but ignored by the mainstream American media.  Unfortunately, he became a casualty of that conflict.  The second thing that brought me back to the film was finally reading Restrepo co-director and producer Sebastian Junger’s book, War.

War covers the same year with the same platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley as Restrepo.  But instead of being a retread of the film, it is actually a terrific supplement, making a great film much better.

Restrepo existed to capture the schizophrenic nature of war.  It alternated scenes of intense combat, a harrowing moment of grief over a fallen soldier, and moments of ultimate banality as the soldiers sit around for days, almost praying for a firefight to break up the boredom.  Through interviews with the soldiers, filmed after they left the Korengal Valley, Junger and Hetherington did some explorations of the psychological effects of heavy combat on young men barely out of their teens.  But these moments felt slightly superficial–as though the filmmakers knew audiences expected these scenes and they felt obligated to deliver them.

Even if the film didn’t succeed as a look into the damaged psyche of the combat soldier, it remained an invaluable look at the day to day grind of extended combat and the folly of trying to win over the people of Afghanistan.

In the podcast, I described the attempts by Kearney, the captain of the platoon, to persuade the village elders to work with the Americans as “the world’s worst customer service job.”  While many of my comments during the podcast were incomprehensible at best, this statement made a lot of sense and was backed up when I watched the film again, last night.  In a sick way, these scenes almost play as satire.

After reading War, I was struck by how different Junger’s descriptions were from what was shown in the film.  Where Restrepo was more concerned with taking a fly on the wall approach, War finds Junger becoming a character in the story.  In one of the more unexpected developments, he admits there is no way he can be objective about the men or their mission.  He exposes that idea of objectivity in reporting as a myth and explains that he could not help but bond with the men he was spending so much time with.  While not fighting, he was in camp with the soldiers, on patrol with them, and ducking the same bullets and explosions that they did.  Since so much of the book is given over to explaining how much every man in the platoon relied on the other and bonded as a group, it was inevitable that Junger would come to feel a kinship with the men who were keeping him safe.

Even more surprising than this admission of a lack of objectivity is Junger’s assertion, at certain points, that he would, if the need arose, pick up a gun and fight the Taliban.  After miraculously walking away, uninjured, from a vehicle that was destroyed by an improvised explosive device, Junger writes:

It’s tempting to view killing as a political act because that’s where the repercussions play out, but that misses the point: a man behind a rock touched two wires to a battery and tried to kill me–to kill us.  There are other ways to understand what he did, but none of them overrides the raw fact that this man wanted to negate everything I’d ever done in my life or might ever do.  It felt malicious and personal in a way that combat didn’t.  Combat theoretically gives you the chance to react well and survive; bombs don’t allow for anything…The bomber built a campfire to keep himself warm that night while waiting for us.  We could see his footprints in the sand.  The relationship between him and me couldn’t be clearer, and if I’d somehow had a chance to kill him before he touched the wires together I’m sure I would have.  As a civilian, that’s not a pretty thought to have in your head.  That’s not a thought that just sits there quietly and reassures you about things.

I suppose there’s nothing extremely surprising about a journalist admitting feeling angry or threatened enough that they would kill in a war zone.  What is interesting is that people might take Junger to task for making this admission.  To me, it’s proof that he is that much closer to understanding the men of the platoon.  He makes it clear that he’s angry that the bomber tried to kill not only him, but also the men who were with him in the vehicle.  He never carried a gun and he was not a member of the military, but at that moment, he felt more of a kinship with those men than a reporter who was only there for a few days to get some quotes for a quick news piece ever could.  That makes his descriptions of what the men went through and what they felt to be more honest than if he had tried to pretend to some nonexistent pretense of objectivity.

Beyond introducing Junger as a presence in the story, War also does a great service to the audience of the film by filling in the gaps of who several of these soldiers are.  In the film, there was no context to understand them.  We knew a name, a rank, and occasionally what their job was in the platoon.  Beyond that, the only personal details about the men came from something they would mention briefly during their deployment or in the follow-up interviews.

In the book, Junger uses O’Byrne, a soldier with the uncanny ability to articulate the difficult feelings about what was happening not only to himself, but to the platoon as a unit, almost as a personification of the platoon.  He’s barely in Restrepo, but his tragic backstory is fascinating and his cynically funny observations bring across the kind of personality it takes to be a good combat soldier (which is different from a good soldier in peacetime, as the book makes abundantly clear).  An entire book could have been written on O’Byrne alone, but he’s just one man in an astoundingly rich narrative that shows time and again how soldiers at war don’t fight for a grand political plan; they fight to keep each other alive.

If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, I recommend checking them out the same way I did.  Watch Restrepo to get a feel for the chaos and horror, read War to more fully appreciate the men in the film, then watch the film again with your newfound perspective.  Separately, they’re very good works, but together they form a brilliant whole.

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